All through Season of Mists I’ve had a recurring complaint that each successive issue in the primary story has virtually no resolution to it. By forcing myself to re-read the series on a slower schedule so that I can approach each issue fresh and with minimal overlap with the story that surrounds it, I’ve really come to appreciate how it must have felt having to wait a whole month for what came next. Gaiman continuously ratchets up the tension in this arc, with Dream first setting out to make amends to Nada before getting frustrated by Lucifer complicating things with his renunciation of Hell, which then spins into the various mythological figures coming to visit with the hope of acquiring control of Hell for themselves. We still remember that reconciliation with Nada was Dream’s original goal, but that’s not been revisited since Chapter 2 (Nada’s appearance as a bargaining chip in the negotiations for Hell reminds us of this, but it isn’t in the forefront of the more recent proceedings, and it’s been tantalizingly dangling there for what seems like forever, especially if we consider that this particular story first began way back in issue #9).
When we discuss writing and the art of constructing a story with strong emotional impact, Rachael often points out that one of the most important tricks to plotting a good story is to orchestrate it so that the climaxes and resolutions for as many of the threads as possible occur in close proximity to one another (for anyone who’s inclined to think in gaming terms, it’s like implementing a chain bonus multiplier that rewards sustained successful execution of whatever game mechanic you want to think of). It’s not an easy trick to pull off, but when it happens it’s incredibly satisfying.
All this is to say that while most of Season of Mists is semi-frustrating build up, its final chapter is a continuous string of payoffs that makes me willing to forgive all the suspense I’ve been left in for the past couple months. Really, I think this is the issue that marks the transition from The Sandman being a really good comic to a great comic, as we’re getting here the first taste of how Gaiman will be structuring the remainder of the series: multiple issues feeding into a story arc that has a nice payoff while building in more and more ongoing threads that will be resolved in ever larger batches.
To get down to specifics of this issue, we finally get to see Nada confront Dream for what he did to her in parallel with the fates of the angels Remiel and Duma, Loki, and Lucifer. Nada’s refusal to let Dream half ass his way through his apology to her (the number of qualifiers he employs to distance himself from his own responsibility is amazing) is so satisfying in its own right, because it’s the first time that we get to see someone besides Death set Dream straight and demand that he do better. The most prominent motif in Dream’s character arc throughout the series is that he is a terrible ex-lover, and his realization and correction of this fact proceeds to cost him more and more. We got a taste of this in the earlier standalone story “Calliope,” but this final encounter with Nada really crystallizes the pattern that Gaiman’s going to follow from here on out (rounding out this particular motif is the small development in this issue that Nuala, the lady from Faerie who was given to Dream as a gift, discovers here that she must stay in the Dreaming or risk the displeasure of Titania; that she will eventually fall in love with Dream should come as little surprise, but we’ll revisit her later).
Juxtaposed with Dream’s growth, we get to see Remiel and Duma assume their new roles as Lords of Hell with further meditation on how unjust their predicament is; Remiel immediately sets about trying to justify God’s decision as being about compassion, with a small discourse on how Hell will be about gradual redemption rather than simple punishment, which one of the inhabitants remarks makes the suffering even worse. Remiel is insisting that there must be some ultimately benevolent purpose behind all the suffering, and in his refusal to accept any other explanation, he deprives the condemned of their own satisfaction, shifting the purpose of Hell away from wrestling with personal demons to one of abusing others for their own good. The former situation is already bad, but it lacks a certain element of cruelty in comparison to the latter, and in my mind it simply reinforces the thesis that Gaiman’s character of God is a jerk who only cares about preserving his own position of power in the universe instead of enacting the kenotic principle that I think best informs our understanding of our universe’s God.
Lucifer has a single scene in this issue which involves him sitting on a beach in Perth, Australia, enjoying his retirement when a man who’s had a lot of senseless misfortune in his life (he lost his two sons to the Vietnam War and a car wreck, and his wife died of breast cancer) remarks that for all the bad things he’s endured, he can at least enjoy the beauty of a unique sunset every evening, so whatever god may have dealt him such a bad lot can’t be all bad. That Lucifer grudgingly agrees about the sunsets is kind of a bittersweet ending; he’s fully justified in thinking the worst of God, especially since his story echoes Nada’s in macro: he refused to submit to the will of a greater being, and he was punished excessively for it. It’s perhaps Dream’s saving grace that unlike God, he is capable of learning and practicing humility, even poorly. We have to remember that even if Lucifer is allowed to walk away from Hell (it’s probably not unreasonable to consider that God could force him back in that position if he wanted to), God’s solution is to choose a couple of other victims with no pretense of apparently just punishment.
The last character to figure into this issue is Loki, whom we discover has escaped from Odin and Thor’s captivity by switching places with the lone Japanese deity Susano-o-no-Mikoto. Dream isn’t fooled by Loki’s ploy, and he makes a decision that will have severe consequences much later because he has to stick to his rigid code regarding hospitality. This is the development that clinches Lucifer’s revenge on Dream. While the resolution of Season of Mists suggests that Lucifer is just happy to be in retirement, we can’t forget that he promised he would destroy Dream, and Loki will play into that plot eventually. I see echoes of Lucifer in Loki, as a character who created mischief for someone higher up in his mythological hierarchy and was punished for it. The inversion with Dream, who does Loki a kindness by not alerting Odin to his escape, is that Loki can’t stand being indebted to someone else, especially someone with more power than him. In a way, I think Dream has the misfortune of being the proxy for all the rage and vengeance that these marginalized figures can’t enact against their enemies in their own cosmologies.
As for art, this issue is particularly special because it marks the last time Mike Dringenberg does pencils for The Sandman. For me, Dringenberg’s sketchy, slightly erratic art is the definitive look of Sandman, and I’m really sad to see him off the book after this. Future artists are still quite good in their own unique ways, but when I imagine Dream and his supporting cast, I think of Dringenberg’s designs.
Our next issue will involve a detour from the presented issue order in the trade paperbacks, as we begin a triptych of summer stories that provide a few glimpses into the Endless’ history.